They call him their father. Their Tata. Their hero. Young and old in South Africa dance with pride pumping in their veins. Fists hoisted high in victory. A continent away, Americans change their Facebook profile photos to one of a man with a gentle, mischievous smile and a face carved by struggle, chiseled with wisdom. A woman in London leaves a note by his statue in Parliament Square saying he kissed her on the cheek when she was three and she considers it a blessing. President Nelson Mandela was a leader, some say the greatest of our time, the likes of which the world may never see again.
In the most defining moments of our history, we’ve always been a world in search of someone to lead us. When the oppressive foot of apartheid stomped on the liberty and dignity of Black South Africans, Mandela stepped forward to lead. The halting, yet insistent cadence of his voice made us lean forward a little so we didn’t miss anything. One of my former classmates from Northwestern University remembers decorating an anti-apartheid t-shirt her junior year with a bright yellow sun on it. She says she wore it until holes checkered it many years later.
I wonder if we’re entering a post-leader era? Others around the world who wield power are loosely referred to as leaders, but many are made puny by politics. They’re not the transformative leaders who can make us stand taller, emboldened, quietly suspecting that greatness also lies within us.
I believe I was born three years too late. I could only experience the life of another great leader through my parents’ stories and scratched vinyl records. As a child, I remember my father pacing on our burnt orange carpet with fire in his eyes as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s baritone boomed in every corner of our Chicago apartment. “I never want you to hate. Be like Dr. King. He whipped his enemies intellectually,” my father would say. And his hands. My father shook them at a Chicago march and said they were the softest he ever touched.
That kind of devotion, a reverence almost, is typically reserved for deities. But a rare few have the vision, charisma and moral courage to inspire that kind of following and admiration. Many of us desperately want to be part of something greater than ourselves. A cause. A movement. And sometimes we find a person who can give voice to the call of our collective consciousness, the rumblings of our spirit.
As I mourn the passing of Mandela, I also mourn the loss of leadership. Maybe it’s whimsy or nostalgia that makes me yearn for another Mandela and King. Turbulent times usually birth our larger-than-life leaders. They emerge from struggle and rise to the call of circumstances. I suspect that somewhere in the world, the quest for freedom will thrust another man or woman forward to give voice to the passion of the people. Eventually, Mandela’s life will be flattened by the pages of history books. But I hope his legacy will be defined by those who see their own capacity to lead as he did.
This post was written by Nancy E. Johnson, a writer and award-winning journalist living in Atlanta, Georgia. Follow Nancy on Twitter @TheNancyJBrand.